Heading into the 2010 off-season, running back was one position at which the Buffalo Bills had enviable depth. Young veterans Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch had emerged as one of the league's best tandem of backs during the 2008 season, and retained strong future prospects even after Lynch served a suspension and lost his starting job a year later. When you've got two good backs, you're generally set at running back.
Then the Bills drafted Clemson star running back C.J. Spiller with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Suddenly, what was a position of strength for the Bills was now one of controversy, as Spiller's addition immediately sparked trade interest surrounding Lynch.
We're about ready to head into June, however, and Lynch is still with the team that made him a first-round draft pick in 2007. Jackson and Spiller have clearly defined roles in new head coach Chan Gailey's offensive scheme, and there's enough young talent on the team for Lynch to look completely out of place in this lineup. Still, an argument can be made that he's valuable enough to keep around without fair compensation, and clearly, GM Buddy Nix has agreed with that argument to date. An analysis of Buffalo's running backs is waiting for you after the jump.
This will be earth-shattering analysis, I promise. Buffalo's running backs will need to run the ball well. They'll also need to catch the ball well, and pick up the blitz effectively. Fin.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
38 - Corey McIntyre. Buffalo's previous offensive system(s) didn't require heavy use of a blocking fullback, so McIntyre saw only spot duty offensively and was used as a special teams cover man. That's the role he'll assume again in 2010, but given the fact that the Bills are going to be a run-first offensive team, McIntyre's utility offensively might expand.
23 - Marshawn Lynch. Everyone's new favorite whipping boy has not reported to any of the team's voluntary workouts thus far this off-season; I'm not particularly fussed. Even if Lynch were in town, he's still a decided third in the RB pecking order, and nothing he's doing now is changing that. He'll be here when he needs to be here, Gailey will find ways to get him some touches this season, and he'll be gone either next off-season or when his rookie deal expires. Lynch isn't part of the future at this position anymore, but he's more useful as a third back than he is as a future mid-round draft pick. Good for Buddy Nix on sticking with his guns here.
22 - Fred Jackson. Fred Jackson might be my favorite Buffalo Bills player ever. There, I said it. He's a pro's pro - competitive, productive, professional in demeanor, and not afraid to lead when it's warranted. If I'm a member of this team, I'm voting Jackson as a team captain - that's where he belongs. He'll never be a superstar, nor will he ever be a home run threat, but Jackson just makes plays. He's a pleasure to watch, and I hope he's here a long time. Jackson's versatility as a runner and receiver will be of great utility to Gailey.
30 - Chad Simpson. He carved himself a role as a return specialist in Indianapolis, where he averaged 23.6 yards per kick return and recorded his first return touchdown as a pro in 2009. He also saw spot duty as a runner in Indianapolis' less-than-stellar rushing attack. In Buffalo, Simpson's best shot at sticking is as the default kick returner, where he'll have stiff competition from the likes of C.J. Spiller, Leodis McKelvin and a few others.
44 - Rodney Ferguson. Ferguson has good size (5'11", 245), is a nice cut-back runner, and has soft hands out of the backfield. But he's not a home run threat, and the Bills have too much depth for Ferguson to seriously contend for a roster spot. I like him better as a practice squad option than Joique Bell.
21 - C.J. Spiller. There's not a lot to say here that hasn't already been said. One of college football's most explosive players and one heck of a nice guy, Spiller has a shot to become a special NFL player. I cannot wait to see him in action for the first time.
35 - Joique Bell. Jeff Winters penned an article about Bell for your reading pleasure. I'm not as bullish on Bell as Jeff is, and think he's the longest of longshots from this group to make the team. He does, however, have practice squad potential, and it's hard not to like his tremendous college production.
Jackson has three years and $4.9 million remaining on an extension he signed last May. Spiller is likely to get a deal slightly better than the five-year, $22.9 million deal 2009 No. 9 overall pick B.J. Raji signed last year (on August 13). Lynch is technically under contract for three more years, but the final year is voidable; he'll make $2.03 million over the next two seasons. McIntyre is entering the second of a two-year deal he signed last February. Simpson signed an undisclosed contract with the team on May 11, and the details of Ferguson's and Bell's deals are unknown as well.
Clearly, the Bills are deep at this position, with the out-of-nowhere Jackson embarking on a surprisingly excellent career complemented by two first-round draft picks. Add in a solid return specialist in Simpson and a lead blocker that might actually be useful in the Bills' new offensive scheme, and the Bills not only have depth, but a great deal of versatility at this position. Buffalo's coaching staff won't take that for granted; these players will absolutely be the focal point of the Bills' offensive scheme in 2010.
Call me crazy, but I think there's a solid chance that five of these players stick on the final roster. That's clearly not a lock, but it's not unprecedented, either; the Bills kept five running backs to start the 2007 regular season. A lot will depend on how young talent develops at tight end and especially wide receiver. It's important to remember that a guy like Spiller can create numbers game illusions, which don't really reflect the depth at the collective offensive skill positions. It's early, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jackson, Lynch, Spiller, Simpson and McIntyre all made the final 53. I think chances are fantastic that four are kept, with Simpson being the odd man out in that scenario. Ferguson or Bell could be practice squad options.